Germany’s Political Mainstream is in Need of Renewal

David Gow | 26 September 2017

Angela Merkel, Opposition24, CC-BY-2.0

Sunday’s general election in Germany (#Bundestagswahl2017) has proven to be an object lesson in how complacency and loss of connectivity with real people’s real concerns can damage even as consummate a politician as Angela Merkel. The German state, virtually unreformed since 1949, has clearly lost contact with German society – not least in the eastern part, where Merkel grew up and began her political career.

Merkel and the complaisant junior partner of her grand coalition, the SPD, under the hapless (and hopeless) Martin Schulz, have been given what the FAZ chief commentator calls a warning portent, or you might call it the writing on the wall. And that holds true for the Bavarian CSU, sister party of Merkel’s CDU, and its flip-flop leader Horst Seehofer: it won less than 40% of the vote after being used to governing with absolute majorities. The old guard is tired, bereft of ideas and semi-redundant. When the two big-tent parties (Volksparteien) together win only a shade more than 50% of the votes, German politics is in need of renewal.

We all now know that the ‘fascisant’, ultra-nationalist, Islamophobic Alternative für Deutschland was the main winner, taking 12.6% of the vote and 94 seats in the Bundestag after just five years in existence. In Saxony, home of Dresden and Leipzig, it emerged the overall winner with 27% – and several direct mandates. Its central message, chillingly echoing the 1930s, came on Sunday night from the co-leader of its campaign, Alexander Gauland: ‘We will hunt them down. We will hunt down Ms Merkel or whoever else and we will take back our country and our people.’

Fortunately, as the following hangover day underlined, the AfD is in no shape to be a serious opposition in parliament. Its ‘moderate’ co-leader, Frauke Petry, resigned in horror at the sort of campaign, largely on social media, run by the party that was exposed (in German): a poisonous Nazi assault on democratic and constitutional politics. But, even if, as in Trumpland, democrats and decent human beings will respond to this trash, the political centre is seriously holed and weakened.

Merkel’s campaign, reminiscent of Macmillan in the UK almost 60 years ago (‘you’ve never had it so good’), failed to address any of the real issues facing Germany in 2017 – and not just how to integrate the one million-plus migrants admitted in recent years. No mention of the appalling state of the country’s roads and schools, often collapsing. No mention of how the excessive current account surplus/record exports are threatened by a failure to invest in digital services and goods. Little or nothing on Germany’s global role. Nor on the plans for reforming the eurozone – own budget, joint economy/finance minister, EMF – put forward in detail on 26 September at the Sorbonne by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The CDU/CSU never grasped (as even Jeremy Corbyn has) that one way to defeat identity politics of the toxic kind promulgated by UKIP, the Front National and AfD is to offer hope, renewal, a share in the fruits of economic success, a genuine fight against growing inequality (even in Germany). This holds even more true of the social democratic SPD that now needs the promised period in opposition to rethink a ‘social contract’ for the modern era, not one for 1970, and finally rid itself of ordoliberal/neoliberal fallacies.

It goes without saying that it will take Merkel weeks, if not months, to form a working ‘Jamaica’ coalition with the revived Liberals (FDP) and the Greens and agree on both a cabinet and programme of government. (She even wants to talk to the SPD in case she needs to fall back on a grand coalition, but that’s unlikely). With the best will in the world, it’s hard to see how this triumvirate can be anything but a recipe for conflict and confusion. It will, as Joschka Fischer says, take all of Merkel’s proven skills to keep this show on the road for four years.

The leaders of Germany’s traditionally closest European partners, Britain and France, are going to be severely disappointed/dismayed by the election outcome and Merkel’s weakened position. Macron has put many of his eggs in the basket of giving new steam to the old Franco-German locomotive (Schmidt-Giscard/Mitterrand-Kohl) by persuading Merkel to back a more expansive and solidarity-based fiscal policy in exchange for French budgetary rectitude. Those Eurozone plans look like burned baguette already even if Wolfgang Schäuble is drummed out of the finance ministry in the coalition horse-trading.

Theresa May, assuming she survives her party’s Manchester conference, is even more undone than she was before Florence and that dire speech. A Germany grappling with its own demons under a weakened chancellor is unlikely to devote much time and energy and, let’s face it, even less than before, to bailing out May. A hard Brexit’s gonna come…

David GowDavid Gow | Twitter

Sceptical Scot

David Gow is Editor of, Editor of Social Europe and Senior Adviser at CabinetDN, the public affairs consultancy. He is former European Business Editor of The Guardian and is Advisory Board Member of the Scottish Centre on European Relations.